COURTS IN CRISIS

The justice system time forgot

Judges, prosecutors, lawyers and court secretaries will go on strike on Wednesday

They are protesting against the chronic underfunding of what they say is an ailing system

A judge's robes hang on a courtroom door during a previous strike in 2009. / LUIS SEVILLANO (EL PAÍS)

The Criminal Courts at Madrid's Plaza de Castilla are typical of the bunker style of architecture that flourished in the immediate post-Franco years. Opened in 1978, the building is a gray seven-story concrete structure that has not aged well. Inside, there is an air of Soviet-era terminal decline: handwritten notes in the corridors indicate changes to courts for hearings; the signs have been vandalized; the clocks don't work; the waiting room walls are scrawled with graffiti; and the undersides of the benches where people await their hearings are encrusted with chewing gum. Some see it as a metaphor for an ailing justice system; perhaps it is simply an indication of chronic underfunding.

Either way, this Wednesday will see judges, prosecutors, lawyers and court secretaries go on strike in this court and every other throughout Spain, to protest against their working conditions, which they say are being worsened by changes that were introduced by Justice Minister Alberto Ruiz-Gallardón in October.

This is the second such strike in two months, and only the third time that legal professionals have staged industrial action since Spain returned to democracy. Gallardón has done away with substitute judges, increasing the workload of magistrates, as well as reducing their days off. Their workload has been increased by new legal taxes, evictions, tougher sentencing conditions, and the requirement for people to pay court fees to bring civil suits. Gallardón also intends to overhaul the General Council of the Judiciary (CGPJ), the watchdog that oversees the country's legal system, a move that judges see as political interference.

Inside the Madrid courts, there is an air of Soviet-era terminal decline

Across the other side of Madrid, hidden behind Plaza España, are the courts that deal with cases of unfair dismissal, which have tripled since the government introduced labor legislation last year making it easier for employers to sack workers. The building is of similar vintage to the courts at Plaza Castilla, with the same air of "abandon hope all ye who enter here." At 9am, Monday to Friday, magistrate Isidoro Saiz makes his way through the cardboard boxes protecting dozens of homeless people sleeping rough in the square in front, dragging a supersized briefcase on a trolley behind him.

His court shares a waiting room with seven others. It's a small, stuffy room with no windows, and by 9.30am every day there are about 50 people packed into it, all shouting to make themselves heard. The lack of space is, like so many of Spain's problems, the result of the collapse of the construction sector. The original building the courts were housed in was sold two years ago, due to plans to build a so-called Campus of Justice, in the northern outskirts of the city, where all the capital's courts were to be located in buildings designed by star architects Norman Foster and Zaha Hadid. But the scheme fell through, and more than 300 court rooms are now in temporary rented accommodation.

The administrative staff arrive and begin to call out the names of today's hearings. The first called to Saiz's court have not yet arrived. The case involves a company that simply changed its name and premises, leaving its employees behind. This is now a criminal case. Next up is the case of a woman employed by a gas station. Her bosses accuse her of stealing loyalty points from unwary customers and adding them to her own card. Her lawyer denies this, saying that the woman's boss told her that the points were a perk. Witnesses are called. Each hearing is meant to take 15 minutes. This one has been going on for an hour, and shows no signs of conclusion.

The important cases will be heard in October; the rest will wait until 2014"

The judge is keen to prevent the prosecution team from showing video footage. "We haven't got all day," he insists. The atmosphere in the court is close, there is no air conditioning, and the noise level from the adjoining waiting room is mounting, made worse by the arrival of a woman with a baby, which begins to cry. The heat is now unbearable.

The hearing finally comes to a close. It is 11.30am, and this is only the second case of the 10 planned for that day. The next is another sacking. The judge tries to get the lawyers to speed things up, to which the defense replies: "We understand that this is a tough day, but the timetable is not our problem."

By now it is 12.30pm, and the case due to be heard at 10am is only just beginning. If the judge and his secretary are to hear every case today, they will have to move things forward quickly, in many cases, bypassing certain formalities.

Judges are the bottleneck in the system: there are not enough of them"

The next case hinges on a subtle interpretation of the law, which will determine whether the sacked employee is to receive compensation. Is a "parks catalyst" the same as a "public spaces catalyst"? Once again, witnesses are brought in, documentary evidence presented, and accusations and counter accusations are made. Finally, at 1.30pm, after a couple of breaks, and behind-the-scenes agreements, things begin to pick up. A court functionary opens a window to let in a little air. There is still an hour to go. At 2.30pm, the judge lets out an audible sigh of relief. The court empties, leaving just him and his secretary. "Thank goodness there were no appeals against the Social Security system," he says with a smile.

Asked about his plans for the rest of the day, Saiz replies: "I take work home and carry on into the evening; I also work weekends." His two days a week overseeing preliminary hearings are just part of his workload; he is also required to study evidence, the legality of cases, as well as hand down sentences. "It's the only way that we can keep up with the workload. It's insane," says his secretary, Miguel Ángel Aguilar, adding: "The most important cases are set to be heard in October; the rest will have to wait until 2014."

In the offices of the court, magistrate Benito Raboso says that in 2012, 41 courts had to deal with 60,000 cases. The present rate is 300 new cases a day: eight per judge. The CGPJ says that in 2011, some 9,041,442 cases were registered throughout Spain, a third of which were unresolved by the end of the year.

One of the biggest problems is the computer system, which is from 1999

"We cannot use the crisis as an excuse for companies just laying off their workforce. As judges we have a responsibility to protect people," says Raboso. "Judges are the bottleneck in the system: there are not enough of them. It's like a hospital without surgeons," he says. There are 4,000 judges in Spain: 10.2 for every 100,000 people; the European average is 21.3.

Antonio Bujalance, a magistrate in Málaga's Mercantile Court, also uses a medical analogy to describe Madrid's system. "I wouldn't want to be operated on by a surgeon who had already been in the operating room for 10 hours." Fuentes knows the Spanish justice system and its faults from first-hand experience: over the last 11 years he has worked in provincial courts throughout the country. "The judiciary deals with the cases that make the headlines," he says. "But people shouldn't forget that most magistrates work under conditions that are as bad, or worse, than those of everybody else." To illustrate his point he tells of one provincial court where there were mice running around. His anecdotes refer to ad hoc courtrooms in blocks of flats, of colleagues having heart attacks in the middle of a hearing, of being paid 50 euros a week, and of arriving home most evenings to dump piles of sentences on his desk.

"Being a judge is a vocation, and for many of us it is frustrating not to be able to do our job properly. I have had to take sleeping tablets at night," he explains. Around 80 percent of the Justice Ministry's spending is on salaries, and so he proposes savings by using judges more efficiently: working from home via internet, and only attending court for hearings. "There are lots of solutions to this problem," he says. "The problem is that nobody is asking us - the people who work in this from to day to day - for our opinion," he says.

Each of the regions uses a different, incompatible, software system

Senior judges back Fuentes' analysis. Eduardo López Palop, the judge overseeing an investigation into the death of five teenagers at a Madrid Halloween party in November, complained during a first hearing in January about the lack of means at his disposal to carry out his duties.

López was overheard by reporters saying that his workload is such that he has to postpone 12 summonses in other cases that he has open in order to attend to the case brought of the five girls, who lost their lives in a human stampede at the party in the Madrid Arena venue. The reporters waiting in the corridor of the court for an official suspect's testimony to end overheard the judge speaking to two of the lawyers representing two of the victims' families.

On January 14, the government chamber of the Madrid regional High Court agreed to ask the General Council of the Judiciary to provide a judge to relieve López of other cases so he can concentrate on the Madrid Arena investigation. Currently, a supply judge has been provided to help out with the Madrid Arena case for just the next six months.

Citations are delivered by post, which requires time, people and resources

Gallardón's proposals to cut the number of substitute judges has further angered legal professionals. There are 1,200 throughout the country, who handle around a third of all cases. "Getting rid of substitute judges and expecting the current number of judges to deal with all cases is simply ignoring reality," says Iñaki Subijana, a judge based in Guipúzkoa. "All this will do is to make the waiting lists even longer than they are at the moment," he says.

Meanwhile, back in Plaza Castilla, things are piling up - literally. Boxes of broken printers and keyboards, and even typewriters are stacked in a corner while civil servants pass by with files stuffed under their arms, or stacked in shopping trolleys.

One of the admin staff agrees to talk on condition of anonymity. He explains that one of the biggest problems he and his colleagues face is the computer system, Libra, which dates back to 1999 and is not compatible with Windows. "It is very slow and is always crashing, but people here are wary of changing it because they know from experience that change is always worse." He then explains that each of Spain's regions uses a different, incompatible, software system of its own: Cicerone, Avantius, Adriano, Temis, etc. He adds that it isn't just different regions that cannot communicate with each other, but even within the same province two courts will often use a different system.

The archive is from the 19th century. Nothing here has been digitalized"

A walk through the corridors of the courts at Plaza Castilla is like traveling back in time. There is a telegram office. José Carlos Pérez, the man in charge, opens a leather file: "In total, between those we send out and those we receive, around 5,000 telegrams pass through this office every day. They speed things up," he says. "If somebody doesn't turn up, we can contact them by telegram within three hours." Asked if it might not be time to begin replacing this system with text messages or emails, he says that this would be far too complicated.

Our anonymous guide, who has worked in the office that coordinates all the documentation for the 101 courts in the building, tells us that in the absence of a reliable computer system, he and his colleagues pile up files on desks before distributing them to each court by hand. Citations are delivered by post, which requires time, people and resources. He complains about the lack of the latter: "Our stamps don't work, they break, we don't get replacements, and we are always lending or borrowing them."

But to get a really good idea of the problem, one need only visit the archive in the basement. It has five rooms, connected by a 100-meter-long passage, and contains around 250,000 files. "We have already emptied it twice, sending out the documents to auxiliary depositories," says the woman in charge that day. "The system is straight from the 19th century. Nothing here has been digitalized: everything is still inventoried in notebooks," she says. There is a constant coming and going, with staff bringing down files for which there is no longer any room upstairs. Staff record all movements in a book using a pencil. Over in a corner, somebody is tying up a bundle of papers with string. Somebody else opens a box to bring out the office's most important tool: a stone. "I use it to get the staples out of the reports," she says. She grabs a file and begins bashing pieces of paper. "We once had a group of people from Algeria who were studying archive systems. They came here because they had been told that our service is second to none," says somebody else, laughing. "When they saw all this they couldn't believe their eyes: their system was entirely digitalized."

A lot of people here have lost any enthusiasm they had for their work"

Our guide leads us back upstairs. "A lot of people here have lost any enthusiasm they might once have had for their work. You see that there is no point in making an effort." In the corridor, a civil servant is shouting out the names of those involved in a case of shoplifting. The stolen items are valued at 50 euros: the case will cost hundreds to hear. Nobody turns up. The minutes pass, unmarked by the broken clocks on the walls.

 

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